Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Is There Life After Death, and Is It Always Light and Love?

A friend recently wrote me about Near Death Experiences (NDE) after seeing the moving Heaven is For Real. Here is my response:

I saw the movie, Heaven is For Real, and found it very interesting. I have some ambivalence on this topic of life after death. On the one hand I am enthusiastically interested in compiling evidence for the reality of ongoing consciousness; but on the other hand, I see the phenomenon as easy to "cash in on" by anyone who has some unusual experience of altered consciousness. Human history is rife with people who make money off of the supernatural and the promise of certainty regarding life beyond the grave. I am really more fascinated by the fact that so many of us take the topic seriously--pro or con. I see no skeptics working feverishly to refute the existence of Santa Claus or Tooth Fairies. There is "something" more substantial to this NDE stuff. But mystery and room for doubt is also significant. The ambiguity seems to coincide with a soul-making cosmology—lots of room for doubt, yet ultimately right and wrong choices to be made. I lean toward being a believer--partly because of my own experiences.

Also, I was glad the author included the "negative" side of NDE and afterlife stories. I had something like a NDE in 1994, but the persons who came to me were not friendly. They were glowing 3-D holographic light persons who came to show me the terror of dying in a state of unresolved despair. Their message, in part, was: "If you die now, you will enter into a state of unimaginable suffering." It was clear that such a state was not due to some divine decree for my sinfulness, but rather a necessary concomitant of my state of mind and life at the time. It was more like the Buddhist Bhardo found in the Tibetan Book of the Dead, or the Duat of Egyptian mythology, or Dante's Purgatorio, or the characters on the bus in C.S. Lewis's The Great Divorce. The beings were comprised of dazzling light, but were messengers of terror. They called themselves Middlings--beings caught between paradise and hell; and their mission was to help people "on the edge" make a decision about which direction they want to take--into deeper darkness or into light. After meeting with them, I was "scared straight". They literally scared the existential hell out of me, causing my soul and life to change radically. In addition, N.D.E. expert P. M. H. Atwater's The Big Book of Near-Death Experiences: The Ultimate Guide to What Happens When We Die makes it clear that many return from NDEs with messages of judgment and terror--however, such accounts do not typically sell very well.

So, if I take the "stages of consciousness" theory as a true paradigm, then the possibility (if not sure reality) of a kind of stage three disintegration has to be included in the post-life equation as well as this life. The Mary Poppins optimism of the New Age folks is just as disturbing to me as the Christian (Muslim) consignment of all non-believers to eternal hell. A life of soul-making in a world of moral choices and evolving human freedom requires consequences for all conscious choices. This fact has been a quality of every ancient mythology (not just Christian). The Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims,, Egyptians, Mesopotamians et. al. have a terrifying place for those who have lived badly and chosen selfishly. The Greeks had Hades. Even the mythical skeptical philosopher Plato spoke of an above and below in his Republic: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Myth_of_Er  I do tend to think the terrible aspects are remedial and purposeful, but just as necessary as the light and butterflies. 

Bottom line: the topic fascinates us, and people seem to have a psycho-spiritual category (brain gurus would call it a neural niche) for this stuff. That tends to give the phenomenon more than a little credence as cosmologically possible if not probable. C.S. Lewis noted that there is no yearning within natural human consciousness which does not have the possibility of being filled--i.e. hunger, thirst, sex, material gain, fame, etc. The quest goes on.